How designer Jonathan Anderson reinvented heritage fashion house Loewe's image in just two years
If there was an award for the oddest pairing in fashion, it would go to Jonathan Anderson and Spanish house Loewe. More than a few eyebrows were raised when the designer, who is better known for his conceptual unisex collections and dressing men in cropped tops, was handed the reins to the heritage brand that is all about "luxe" (in other words: conservative) leather goods.
In person, Anderson looks more like an extra from a Saint Laurent runway show than creative director of one of Spain's most treasured possessions. He's dressed in a typical model uniform of white tee and jeans, complete with dark sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from his fingers. A mop of tousled, highlighted blond hair adds to his boyish charm, although he is quick to assert that looks can be deceiving.
"Fashion ultimately imitates life and in life things don't always look good together from the outset," he says. "I know a certain style is good when I feel uncomfortable with it - those looks turn out to be the best. You have to challenge yourself with things you don't like or don't know."
Taking on a brand reinvention is probably one of the biggest challenges the 30-year-old Irish designer has faced in his short but successful career. A former Prada window dresser, he studied menswear at London College of Fashion and launched his eponymous line in 2008 to critical acclaim. He's been nominated for many awards and even collaborated with the likes of Versus.
In 2013 everything changed when LVMH took a minority stake in his label and offered him the role of creative director at Loewe in the hope that he could transform the dormant house into a modern success story along the lines of Givenchy and Céline. The Loewe gig wasn't originally part of the deal but that changed quickly following a covert visit to the Loewe factory.
"Truth is I just fell in love with the people," he says. "I met the master modeller and leather developer, and I thought this brand can be huge. Loewe was never on my radar, but when I went there I could not understand why it had never been articulated in a way that it wasn't global. I questioned if I wanted to do this, but once I started creating a book of ideas, I couldn't stop."
Although Loewe has a network of stores around the world, it was not a brand that many people took notice of (a fact not helped by its unpronounceable name, which for the record is pronounced Lo-Wev-Eh).
So Anderson decided to adopt a more controversial approach to the rebranding. Much like Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent, he unveiled a fresh new identity, including a sleek new logo designed by graphic duo M/M (Paris) and an eye-catching campaign featuring a selection of vintage Steven Meisel images.
"I did a year of research before I started and realised we had to remove the date and city location from the logo. One of my skills is that I am very marketing directed," he says.
While many creative directors use runway shows as a platform to showcase their vision, Anderson focused first on the fundamentals of the brand and what it does best: leather goods. Soon Loewe's iconic buttery soft leather was transformed into covetable designs such as the best-selling Puzzle Bag, the Colourblock Flamenco Crossbody and a range of minimalist clutches and totes embossed with the discreet new logo.
"There are not many brands in the world that are built up in that way. We have such incredible leather knowledge in hand at Loewe and I had to use that," he says.
Next on his list was adding a more personal element to the brand in the form of culture. Along came various projects, including working with renowned Japanese ceramicist Tomoo Hamada on two exclusive pieces for the Tokyo store, inspired by the brand's DNA. His most recent project, which was unveiled in Hong Kong last week, features prints by British textile artist John Allen, which have appeared on a range of summer essentials, from bags to towels.
"When I was looking at what other brands were offering, none of them really dealt with this culture idea," Anderson says.
That's not to say that ready-to-wear takes a back seat at Loewe. This is an area where Anderson has been most prolific, producing both ready-to-wear and pre-collections for men and women which are shown in Paris.
"Marc Jacobs fundamentally opened up the idea that clothing was needed to articulate leather goods. It came from a moment in the 1990s where he changed our thinking on old houses. I've learned through my lifetime that you need a character to tell a story - a bag cannot be isolated. People need something tangible to hold onto and ready-to-wear creates newness," he says.
There's no doubt that his clothing brings a fresh perspective to the brand. His menswear collections feature everything from slouchy raw-silk tunic and turned-up jeans to knitted palazzo pants, each imbued with his signature androgynous touches. His woman is powerful and dressed boldly in blouson blouses made from patchwork leather and wide-legged trousers.
While many critics have embraced the new Loewe look wholeheartedly, others have not been complimentary, saying that Anderson's work is derivative. Not that Anderson is letting it get to him.
"I had to stop reading what people write. I have to be me. I want the brand to be big, and will do everything to make it happen, but I don't want to change who I fundamentally am. You either like what I say or don't," he says.
"I am bored of the days where we are obsessed with the idea that certain designers owned things. You own nothing. Fashion is not about that. It's about reappropriating things, it's how you edit it."
Like most 21st century designers, Anderson is obsessed with the future and creating a brand that is truly of the moment: he has lofty goals to bring Loewe to the next generation of consumers.
"The idea of relevance is the idea that you can be rejected tomorrow. We live in a culture that moves very fast, so that relevance is short-lived. My biggest goal in the next five years is to get to the point where we will do a show and, the day after, the collection is in store. It means we are designing for the moment that it is going out. That's my dream."